Sharing the chair – a model for governance

Taking the role of Chair need not be a long-term commitment, here’s how and why we adopted a rotating model of governance

Helen Browning OBE was Chair of the Food Ethics Council for fourteen years. Chief Executive of the Soil Association and an organic farmer, Helen’s commitment to her role as our Chair of Trustees goes without saying. Helen helped steer and shape the organisation during a period of successive food scares and scandals when food ethics was emerging as a field. But fourteen years is a long time for an organisation and for even the most committed Chair. So, when Helen stepped down from her role we asked, ‘could we do things differently?’

The Food Ethics Council has just four staff and only our executive director works full-time, yet we have 16 Members of our Council including seven Trustees with expertise in farming, food businesses and academia. This impressive roll call of Members and Trustees brings a wealth of authority, diverse thinking and insight to the Council’s work. This diversity is what attracted us to the rotating chair model. What’s more, for an organisation rooted in ethics and values, the model fits well with the ethos and philosophy of our Council in not being hierarchical and in respecting different perspectives.

“We are very lucky to have a strong set of Trustees with skills, commitment and time to take on the Chair role for a fixed period and willing to deepen their relationship with the charity,” says Dan Crossley, our executive director.

“The rotation brings different perspectives and skill sets into play. It worked for us because all of our Trustees have been on our board for more than 12 months. This model has meant that Trustees have had the opportunity to get even more deeply involved. It has helped give me confidence in our approach, with rotating Chairs bringing new energy and ideas. That has allowed us to accelerate our work at a time when food ethics is more important than ever.”

Since 2016 we have had three Chairs – Professor David Pink, emeritus professor of crop improvement, Harper Adams University; Ruth Layton, group sustainability director at Benchmark Holdings plc; and Jon Alexander, co-founder of the New Citizenship Project ­– and all three agree that the model has been beneficial for the organisation.

Outgoing Chair, Alexander says, “the model is a good opportunity for the individual to bring in their own ideas both to the process of governance and to the priorities of the organisation.”

Layton, our second rotating Chair, believes the short time frame helps to focus the mind and, “makes us get our heads around ‘all things Food Ethics Council’ during the time we are in this role.”

That said, the model does not come without its challenges and learning to work with a less permanent Chair has taken time and patience. For David Pink, his six-month term was too short to feel that he had ‘achieved’ something. “It has taken time to establish the boundaries and parameters of the role, not least working out just how long was long enough for each Trustee to serve,” says Crossley.

He adds, “Allowing the model to evolve has also been crucial to making it work. As we have continued with the model we have refined it (12 months instead of six) and it is working really well for us.”

For Alexander this quick succession in governance works best if there is consistency within the organisation. “With a new Chair come new ideas,” says Alexander. “Ensuring those ideas are contributing and not ‘flipflopping’ is only really possible if you have some consistency in staffing, particularly in senior roles, and if there is a clear overall strategy to be working within.”

Joanna Lewis, Policy Director for Soil Association Food for Life and our fourth Chair under the model, took up her role as Chair of Trustees in mid-October. Ahead of her term she considered what success might look like. “The next 12 months look set to be some of the most tumultuous in political terms since the 1970s, and I will be giving my focused support to the team to identify when and where the Food Ethics Council needs to bring its distinctive voice to support the best possible outcomes for food and farming policy, all things considered. I shall judge my 12 months a success if I have supported the executive director and his staff team to stay true to this strategy.”

Essential ingredients for employing a rotating Chair model:

  • Strong set of Trustees with skills, commitment and time to take on the Chair role for a fixed period
  • Trustees who already know the charity’s strategy and work programme and have been on the Board for a minimum of around 12 months
  • Stable management team/ consistency of executive director and staff
  • Close working relationship between executive director and Trustees
  • Clear overall strategy with buy in from Trustees
  • One Trustee remaining as principal line manager for executive director, even while Chair rotates